7 Lessons Learned in Embracing OKRs
It is no surprise that adoption of OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) as a framework has exploded in recent years. The pain point is all too common: How do we turn high-level strategy into actionable goals, and then track cross-departmental progress against those goals? Insight portfolio company, Gtmhub, provides an elegant solution to this complex challenge, empowering companies to shift from a productivity-oriented focus measured by efficiency to an outcome-oriented focus measured by effectiveness.
Recently, Teri Keller, VP of Human Resources at Automox, joined Jenny Herald, VP of Product Marketing at GTMhub, to discuss Automox’s recent migration to an OKR framework. The conversation also featured input from Jay Prassel, CEO & Co-founder of Automox, Pascal Borghino, VP of Engineering and Architecture at Automox, and Gracie Koester of AgileStrategies who helped the team get set up for success. The full session is available to watch here.
Below is a list of 7 key learnings the team at Automox gained from their OKR rollout.
1) Embracing OKRs requires a mindset shift
- Automox’s journey of organizational alignment began with Entrepreneurial Operation System (EOS) outlined in Gino Wickman’s book, Traction. This system focused teams on a series of rocks, which, at Automox, manifested as a large task list that failed to bring disparate functionals together towards an overarching end goal and vision of the future.
- OKRs were seen as an effective strategy to narrow in on what truly matters as a business and what needle-moving accomplishments will get us to where we want to be. The transition, however, requires training, flexibility, and most important, cross-functional buy-in. As Teri attests, “This is a journey – you will stumble, fall down, pivot, go in new directions.”
- “To me, OKRs are a language; they’re a way of communicating just like our company values.” – Jay
2) OKRs allow teams to break down functional silos
- Having North Star metrics and direction allows teams to identify what’s truly important and the synergies required to get there. Up-leveling strategic planning from granular tasks to key results separated the signal from the noise, such that teams could communicate based on intuitive shared definitions of success. OKRs are a powerful way to “cultivate connections among far-flung contributors... give rise to fresh solutions, and... keep even the most successful organizations stretching for more.” (John Doerr, Measure What Matters)
- “Our migration to OKRs was born out of frustration and lack of focus. I can’t stand weekly ‘show up and throw up’ meetings. We adopted EOS Traction to help with this. While useful, and still part of how we plan, Traction is all about what are you doing and how are you achieving it. It was very dogmatic in its approach, and I ended up being a taskmaster. It got away from allowing people to evolve the work and be excited from the bottom up and ended up being too top-down command and control.
- “Each of our departments and teams had its own goals, which under EOS are called ‘rocks.’ It wasn’t allowing us to stay focused on high-level goals; it ended up being more of a task list that failed to push us on where we need to move as a business.” – Teri
3) Executive sponsorship and a coach are keys to success
- We often see OKR rollouts having champions as well as executive sponsorship. At Automox, CEO Jay Prassel was the original advocate and has consistently shared the message on why OKR adoption is so crucial to the company. The trickle-down effect of a clear leadership embrace, combined with the functional boon of an expert-led rollout, is what makes the rollout sticky. Conveniently, Gtmhub has taken the pain out of finding a coach with its Marketplace, which offers an array of expertise.
- “Our CEO knew he couldn’t be in the role of facilitator and participant at the same time. We worked with Gracie Koester at AgileStrategies. A coach not only brings acumen on how to implement OKRs, but also holds you accountable and provides an independent lens when two teams have conflicting or misaligned priorities.” – Teri
4) Ownership at every level of the organization creates a flywheel of adoption
- OKRs are not a “set-it and forget-it” exercise. You need to always be talking about OKRs and regularly scoring performance. “Our senior leadership team did a crash course on OKRs and then brought them to the rest of the organization. We wanted to get buy-in throughout the company. We have OKR champions and embraced the RACI (responsible, accountable, consulted, informed) model, which we restructured to ORCI (owner, responsible, consulted, informed). This gives defined roles of involvement and participant for each OKR and gives a steer on who needs to lean in versus drop into occasional meetings.” – Teri
- “Our company OKRs are set at the board and senior team level. Everything else is bottom-up. You’ve got to create a sandwich where department leads go to their teams and say, ‘here’s what we think the OKRs are for this team; what do you think?’ We want OKRs to be bottoms-up influenced to really get teams bought in.” – Jay
5) OKRs evolve and need to be molded to your organization
- Perfect is not the goal; the priority should be to remain agile to your team’s, business’s, and market’s needs. Continuous learning is fundamental to a sustainable approach to OKRs.
- “Because this is a mindset shift, we need to shake some old habits and build new ones. We focus on the muscle we need to build. Nobody goes to the gym and bench-presses 200 lbs. straight away. Start with what’s manageable, what does the OKR bible say, and then establish what it means for your company.” - Teri
6) Separate performance management from OKRs
- OKRs should engender a culture of ambition and accountability. Setting stretch goals as a team allows us to consider what is achievable, rather than what we think will happen. Automox is building a culture where employees are encouraged to think big without the fear that bold thinking puts their personal success in jeopardy. Furthermore, they have OKRs owned by individuals but don’t have personal OKRs. This means that everyone knows who will pick up the ball on any given KR, but that individual does not have personal performance goals in the form of KRs.
- “Getting your culture to separate goals from performance is the number-one hardest thing to do. This is where culture eats strategy for breakfast. I want my people to be truthful in their status updates; when people tie performance and OKRs, they will tend to underreach [...] When you think about where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, what the big vision is, and the encouragement and inspiration of teams, those to me are OKRs. Then we ask our managers to have a conversation with our employees about their role, their responsibilities, and what you expect of them (RREs). This is the most important part of the lever in determining performance and associated bonus.” – Jay
7) Define roof shots and moonshots
- As Gracie Koester mentions, OKRs are simple, but not easy. Every OKR requires focus, alignment, and measurability. While these components remain consistent, no two OKRs are born equal, and while the overall output should be a higher ceiling and bigger dreams, you will likely identify steppingstones along the way that merit inclusion in your plan.
- This is where roof shots (committed goals) and moon shots (stretch goals) come in. “It’s OK to have roof shots that lead you to moonshots. Not every OKR must be transformational, but at the company level it’s important to aim high.” – Teri
As for Automox’s big picture? “We have one OKR: Automox is the IT Operations cloud. All the KRs beneath that service inform our core annual OKR.” – Jay
For more insights into how to transform your organizational strategy with OKRs, I recommend checking out the GTMhub blog for pieces like:
- How OKRs connect Business Outcomes to Work items that teams deliver
- The 4 S’s of OKR preparation
- OKRs are simple but not easy: 3 reasons why
- The 5 critical success factors of OKR adoption
- Crush the 5 Team Dysfunctions with OKRs
Or their excellent podcast, Dreams with Deadlines. Recently Jenny spoke with Daniel Montgomery of Agile Strategies on Building Strategic Agility.